Thursday, April 02, 2015

Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain

Steve Pinker, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, talks about linguistics and language. You can find the transcript to this video here.  

How did humans acquire language? In this lecture, best-selling author Steven Pinker introduces you to linguistics, the evolution of spoken language, and the debate over the existence of an innate universal grammar. He also explores why language is such a fundamental part of social relationships, human biology, and human evolution. Finally, Pinker touches on the wide variety of applications for linguistics, from improving how we teach reading and writing to how we interpret law, politics, and literature.

Some notes taken while watching this video..

Charles Darwin wrote, “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak as we see in the babble of our young children while no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew or write.” 

"Written language" is not the same as "spoken language". Children have no instinct to write. In all of human history despite many thousands of languages that have existed or still do, written language is very rare.

Language is not grammar. Grammar is also different between spoken and written language.

"A typical high school graduate has a vocabulary of around 60,000 words, which works out to a rate of learning of about one new word every two hours starting from the age of one." This reminds me of the 10,000 hour rule discussed in this video... Become a Polyglot in Minutes Not Years.

A longer quote on how grammar is important part of language, even though language isn't grammar: "Except for a small number of clichéd formulas, just about any sentence that you produce or understand is a brand new combination produced for the first time perhaps in your life, perhaps even in the history of the species.  We have to explain how people are capable of doing it.  It shows that when we know a language, we haven’t just memorized a very long list of sentences, but rather have internalized a grammar or algorithm or recipe for combining elements into brand new assemblies." I suppose then this means grammar is a construct our brains create to help us organize words into patterns.
Grammar as a tool for creating infinite possibilities: "There’s a cliché in journalism for example, that when a dog bites a man, that isn’t news, but when a man bites a dog, that is news. The beauty of grammar is that it allows us to convey news by assembling into familiar word in brand new combinations."

Regarding computer translations... According to legend, one of the first computer systems that was designed to translate from English to Russian and back again did the following given the sentence, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” it translated it back as “The vodka is agreeable, but the meat is rotten.”